by Yonatan Ben-Dor

The New Orleans GA hosted for the second year an e-philanthropy institute, and I was invited to be part of a panel which also featured the Vice President of Blue State Digital, the company that developed Obama’s billion dollar online fundraising campaign. There were 100 seats in the room, and barely half were filled. I found this ironic, as the two panels I attended the day before – next-gen engagement and disruptive philanthropy – were both quite full. It seemed to me as though the Federations were ready to talk about the effects and importance of new forms of philanthropy, but not yet ready to fully engage in them.

Back in 2004, Steven Cohen reported that only 2% of Jews aged 18-34 donated $100 or more to Jewish Federations, while over 24% donated to non-Jewish causes. Among Jews aged 35-49, 9% donate to Jewish federations, but 50% to non-Jewish causes. It was recently reported that 90 percent of Federation givers are older than 45, and some, like Jacob Berkman, believe that “the federation system must figure out how to engage a new generation of Jewish donors to survive.”

At the GA, the general refrain was that young Jews are not donating to their Jewish Federations because they do not feel connected to their Judaism, or to their community. While this claim has truth to it, it is also true that many more young Jews are connected to their Judaism than are donating to their Federations. This seems to indicate that the Federations are doing a better job at keeping young Jews Jewish than they are at convincing young Jews to donate.

I believe that the mass exodus from Federation giving among young Jews is not necessarily because of a communal or religious disconnect, but rather because the Federations have failed to compete successfully in the free marketplace that is modern philanthropy.

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, donating to Federation was a communal obligation, and Jewish identity was the foremost one in the life of any Jewish-American. Today, a general lack of anti-Semitism and the success of Jews in integrating into American society has led many young Jews to feel as much American (or more so) as they do Jewish. And while many young people do feel a sense of identification with Judaism and with their community, it’s only one of their identities: their identification with secular causes (environmentalism, animal protection, democracy and human rights) is just as strong.

I think that many in the Jewish Federation system believe that to get a young Jew to donate Jewishly, you need to be the cause that the young person most strongly identifies with. I don’t think that this is true. Rather, the internet has made it possible, and easy, to have a multitude of connections and identities: I’m a member of Greepeace and a part of Team Coco, as well as being part of the Jewish community. Clicking “Like” on Facebook is a painless circumcision.

What we find, however, is that many of these connections are weak, and not intimate; most Jews I know will say that their Jewish identity is more important to them than being a member of PETA. But the decision of where to donate is for most young people not determined solely or perhaps even primarily by the strength of identity, but rather the strength of the pitch. And this is where the Federations have struck out.

The internet has created a philanthropic marketplace never before seen in the history of giving: the range of choice between causes and charities has forced the Federations to face competition as never before, with thousands of regional, national, and international charities each competing for the same dollar and same donor, irrespective of geographic location. Because the number of charities has grown faster than the pace of philanthropy, donors have felt entitled to become more demanding – of personal attention, of transparency and accountability, and of directed forms of giving. In turn, this has pushed nonprofit organizations to become more accommodating, as donors who do not receive the services they demand will simply and easily migrate to organizations willing to meet their needs.

The Federations have been too irresponsive to the needs and demands of young Jewish donors: for more personal attention, more directed giving opportunities, and for engaging and fun donating experiences. As a result, young Jews are spending their philanthropic dollars outside of the Jewish community. To see the exodus of young Jewish donors from the Federation system as a problem of Jewish identity and community only hits half the mark: it’s not just the donor that’s changing, but the donating experience itself. If Federations want to turn young Jews into young donors, they need to properly engage young Jews both as Jews and as donors.

Yonatan Ben-Dor is the C.E.O. of IsraelGives.org.

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